By Julia van der Vink
Carignan(e), is a grape that is usually either vehemently criticized or alternatively, just ignored. Presumed to have originated in the Aragon region of Spain, Carignan has established a diaspora within France, Italy, Algeria, California, Australia, and other parts of the new world. Gaining the humble reputation as a “workhorse” grape, Carignan is a late-ripening, warm-climate variety that is popular for its high yields. Carignan was, somewhat surprisingly, the most popularly planted grape in France during the 20th century, but it has recently been overtaken by Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, and a host of other varieties that have since been deemed more “promising.” Those who are familiar with Carignan might know it best as a blending agent, and most notably, as the base of many wines of Languedoc-Roussillon, (think Côteaux du Languedoc, Corbiéres, Fitou, and Côtes du Roussillon). However, as I have discovered over the past few weeks of hunting, Carignan is elusive in its pure varietal form.
As a wine, Carignan has been criticized for being “tough.” Deep colored, rustic, and high in tannins and acidity, even Jancis Robinson has historically discounted many Carignan wines for their unripe flavors and allegedly characteristic “rank bitterness.” Producing approximately four times as many hectoliters per hectare as a grape like Cabernet Sauvignon, many Carignan wines are fairly inexpensive, and frequently subjected to carbonic maceration to become more palatable. As a result, Carignan has acquired a sort of Nicolas Cage reputation; overly-gritty, low-budget, and with a road-kill haircut. However, to sum up this superfluous introduction, I will get to my point: Carignan is misunderstood.
It is necessary to begin with the disclaimer that not all Carignan is good. Quite simply, most new vine Carignan is bad. But despite the grape’s indiscriminatingly harsh reputation, old vine Carignan can be excellent. With a structure similar to Syrah, Carignan has fresh acidity and a dry, herbal, spiciness. Furthermore, although Carignan does not display Syrah’s obvious fruit, it couples delightfully sarcastic notes of cherry, with a broad mouthfeel, and a unique terroir-driven twang that plays on the palate. Carignan wines can additionally be characterized by their lingering finishes, capturing notes of leather, cigar, and earth.
When I had the opportunity to ask Randall Grahm what he thought about Carignan, he described it as a litmus test for wine drinkers. “It’s like cilantro, or Cabernet Franc. Some love it, and some don’t.” Carignan certainly has more funk than your average Cabernet Sauvignon, and so it is clearly not for everybody. However as Randall says, “once you abandon the set of indicators that you might use to determine what wine ought to taste like, Carignan can be fantastic.”
If you are looking for Carignan in blends, I would recommend wines from Languedoc-Roussillon, or Randall Grahm’s 60% Carignan Bonny Doon Contra. However, although they have proven to be more difficult to find, I have enormously enjoyed Carignan in its varietal form. Some of the best old vine Carignan comes from the rustic Mediterranean corners of Sardinia, (I recently appreciated the 100% Carignan Rosso Jaunnisolu), and great Carignan is still grown in Priorat, just West of the grape’s origin. Finally, in terms of pairings, Carignan is a great meat wine, especially with grilled sausage, lamb, or roast duck.
Ultimately, in light of Carignan’s legacy of bad press, I felt the need protest on its behalf. Old vine Carignan is no brute. It can make brilliant wines that are edgy, and seductive, and if you give them a chance, they will dance with you. Therefore, whether you end up liking cilantro, or you don’t, I hope you track down some Carignan, and give it an openhearted try.